Parliamentary Debates, House of Commons Official Report July 2, 1942
THE PRIME MINISTER (MR. CHURCHILL): This long Debate has now reached its final stage. What a remarkable example it has been of the unbridled freedom of our Parliamentary institutions in time of war. Everything that could be thought of or raked up has been used to weaken confidence in the Government, has been used to prove that the Ministers are incompetent and to weaken their confidence in themselves, to make the Army distrust the backing it is getting from the civil power, to make the workmen lose confidence in the weapons they are striving so hard to make, to represent the Government as a set of nonentities over whom the Prime Minister towers, and then to undermine him in his own heart and, if possible before the eyes of the nation. All this poured out by cables and radio to all parts of the world, to the distress of all our friends and to the delight of all our foes. I am in favour of this freedom, which no other country would use, or dare to use, in times of mortal peril such as those through which we are passing. But the story must not end there, and I make now my appeal to the House of Commons to make sure that it does not end there.
Although I have done my best, my utmost, to prepare a full and considered statement for the House, I must confess that I have found it very difficult, even during the bitter animosity of the diatribe of the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Bevan), with all its carefully aimed and calculated hostility, to concentrate my thoughts upon this Debate and to withdraw them from the tremendous and most critical battle now raging in Egypt. At any moment we may receive news of grave importance. But the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Devonport (Mr. Hore-Belisha) has devoted a large part of his speech, not to this immediate campaign and struggle in Egypt, but to the offensive started in Libya nearly eight months ago, and he, as did the mover of the Motion of Censure, accused me of making misstatements in saying that, for the first time, our men met the Germans on equal terms in the matter of modern weapons. This offensive was not a failure. Our Armies took 40,000 prisoners. They drove the enemy back 400 miles. They took the great fortified positions on which he had rested so long. They drove him to the very edge of Cyrenaica, and it was only when his tanks had been reduced to 70 or perhaps 80 that, by a brilliant tactical resurgence, the German general set in motion a series of events which led to a retirement I think to a point 150 miles more to the West than that from which our offensive had started. Ten thousand Germans were taken prisoner among those in that fight. I am not at all prepared to regard it as anything but a highly creditable and highly profitable transaction for the Army of the Western Desert. I do not understand why this point should be made now, when, in all conscience, there are newer and far graver matters which fill our minds.
The military misfortunes of the last fortnight in Cyrenaica and Egypt have completely transformed the situation, not only in that theatre, but throughout the Mediterranean. We have lost upwards of 50,000 men, by far the larger proportion of whom are prisoners, a great mass of material, and, in spite of carefully organised demolitions, large quantities of stores have fallen into the enemy's hands. Rommel has advanced nearly 400 miles through the desert, and is now approaching the fertile Delta of the Nile. The evil effects of these events, in Turkey, in Spain, in France and in French North Africa cannot yet be measured. We are at this moment in the presence of a recession of our hopes and prospects in the Middle East and in the Mediterranean unequalled since the fall of France. If there are any would-be profiteers of disaster who feel able to paint the picture in darker colours, they are certainly at liberty to do so.
A painful feature of this melancholy scene was its suddenness. The fall of Tobruk, with its garrison of about 25,000 men, in a single day was utterly unexpected. Not only was it unexpected by the House and the public at large, but by the War Cabinet, by the Chiefs of the Staff and by the General Staff of the Army. It was also unexpected by General Auchinleck and the High Command in the Middle East. On the night before its capture, we received a telegram from General Auchinleck that he had allotted what he believed to be an adequate garrison, that the defences were in good order, and that 90 days' supplies were available for the troops. It was hoped that we could hold the very strong frontier positions, which had been built up by the Germans and improved by ourselves, from Sollum to Halfaya Pass, from Capuzzo to Fort Maddalena. From this position our newly-built railroad ran backwards at right angles, and we were no longer formed to a flank-as the expression goes-with our backs to the sea, as we had been in the earlier stages of the new Libyan battle. General Auchinleck expected to maintain these positions until the powerful reinforcements which were approaching, and have in part arrived, enabled him to make a much stronger bid to seize the initiative for a counter-offensive.
The question of whether Tobruk could be held or not is difficult and disputable. It is one of those questions which are more easy to decide after the event than before it. It is one of those questions which could be decided only with full knowledge of the approaching reinforcements. The critics have a great advantage in these matters. As the racing saying goes, they "stand on velvet." If we had decided to evacuate the place, they could have gone into action on "the pusillanimous and cowardly scuttle from Tobruk," which would have made quite a promising line of advance. But those who are responsible for carrying on the war have no such easy options open. They have to decide beforehand. The decision to hold Tobruk and the dispositions made for that purpose were taken by General Auchinleck, but I should like to say that we, the War Cabinet and our professional advisers, thoroughly agreed with General Auchinleck beforehand, and, although in tactical matters the commander-in-chief in any war theatre is supreme and his decision is final, we consider that, if he was wrong, we were wrong too, and I am very ready on behalf of His Majesty's Government to take my full share of responsibility. The hon. Member for Kidderminster (Sir J. Wardlaw-Milne) asked where the order for the capitulation of Tobruk came from. Did it come from the battlefield, from Cairo, from London or from Washington? In what a strange world of thought he is living, if he imagines I sent from Washington an order for the capitulation of Tobruk. The decision was taken to the best of my knowledge by the Commander of the Forces, and certainly it was most unexpected to the Higher Command in the Middle East.
When I left this country for the United States on the night of 17th June, the feeling which I had, which was fully shared by the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, was that the struggle in the Western Desert had entered upon a wearing down phase, or a long battle of exhaustion, similar to that which took place in the autumn. Although I was disappointed that we had not been able to make a counter-stroke after the enemy's first onslaught had been, I will not say repulsed but rebuffed and largely broken, this was a situation with which we had no reason to be discontented. Our resources were much larger than those of the enemy, and so were our approaching reinforcements. This desert warfare proceeds among much confusion and interruption of communications, and it was only gradually that the very grievous and disproportionate losses which our armour sustained in the fighting around and south of Knightsbridge became apparent.
Here I will make a short digression on to a somewhat less serious plane. Complaint has been made that the newspapers have been full of information of a very rosy character. Several hon. Members have referred to that in the Debate, and that the Government have declared themselves less fully informed than newspapers. Surely this is very natural while a battle of this kind is going on? There never has been in this war a battle in which so much liberty has been given to war correspondents. They have been allowed to roam all over the battlefield, taking their chance of getting killed, and sending home their very full messages whenever they can reach a telegraph office. This is what the Press have always asked for, and it is what they got. These war correspondents, moving about amid the troops and sharing their perils, have also shared their hopes and have been inspired by their buoyant spirit. They have sympathised with the fighting men whose deeds they have been recording, and they have, no doubt, been extremely anxious not to write anything which would spread discouragement or add to their burdens.
I have a second observation to make on this minor point. The war correspondents have nothing to do except to collect information, write their despatches and get them through the censor. On the other hand, the generals who are conducting the battle have other preoccupations. They have to fight the enemy. Although we have always asked that they should keep us informed as much as possible, our policy has been not to worry them but to leave them alone to do their job. Now and then I send messages of encouragement and sometimes a query or a suggestion, but it is absolutely impossible to fight battles from Westminster or Whitehall. The less one interferes the better, and certainly I do not want generals in close battle, and these desert battles are close, prolonged and often peculiarly indeterminate, to burden themselves by writing full stories on matters upon which, in the nature of things, the home Government is not called upon to give any decision. After all, there is nothing we can do about it here while it is going on, or only at very rare intervals. Therefore, the Government are more accurately, but less speedily, less fully and less colourfully informed than the newspapers. That is the explanation. It is not proposed to make any change in this procedure.
To return to my general theme; when on the morning of Sunday, the 21st, I went into the President's room I was greatly shocked to be confronted with a report that Tobruk had fallen. I found it difficult to believe, but a few minutes later my own telegram, forwarded from London, arrived. I hope the House will realise what a bitter pang this was to me. What made it worse was being on an important mission in the country of one of our great Allies. Some people assume too readily that, because a Government keeps cool and has steady nerves under reverses, its members do not feel the public misfortunes as keenly as do independent critics. On the contrary, I doubt whether anyone feels greater sorrow or pain than those who are responsible for the general conduct of our affairs. It was an aggravation in the days that followed to read distorted accounts of the feeling in Britain and in the House of Commons. The House can have no idea how its proceedings are represented across the ocean. Questions are asked, comments are made by individual members or by independents who represent no organised grouping of political power, which are cabled verbatim, and often quite honestly taken to be the opinion of the House of Commons. Lobby gossip, echoes from the smoking room and talk in Fleet Street are worked up into serious articles seeming to represent that the whole basis of British political life is shaken, or is tottering. A flood of expectation and speculation is let loose. Thus I read streamer headlines like this: "Commons demand Churchill return face accusers," or "Churchill returns to supreme political crisis." Such an atmosphere is naturally injurious to a British representative engaged in negotiating great matters of State upon which the larger issues of the war depend. That these rumours coming from home did not prejudice the work I had to do was due solely to the fact that our American friends are not fair-weather friends. They never expected that this war would be short or easy, or that its course would not be chequered by lamentable misfortunes. On the contrary, I will admit that I believe in this particular case the bonds of comradeship between all the men at the top were actually strengthened.
All the same, I must say I do not think any public man charged with a high mission from this country ever seemed to be barracked from his home land in his absence-unintentionally, I can well believe-to the extent that befell me while on this visit to the United States, and only my unshakable confidence in the ties which bind me to the mass of the British people upheld me through those days of trial. I naturally explained to my hosts that those who were voluble in Parliament in no way represented the House of Commons, just as the small handful of correspondents who make it their business to pour out damaging tales about our affairs to the United States, and I must add to Australia, in no way represent the honourable profession of journalism. I also explained that all this would be put to the proof when I returned by the House of Commons as a whole expressing a responsible, measured and deliberate opinion, and that is what I am going to ask it to do to-day.
I noticed that it was stipulated that I should not be allowed to refer in any way in the statement I am now making, or in a statement about Libya, to the results of my mission in the United States. I suppose it was not wished that I should be able to plead any extenuating and correlative circumstances. But I must make it clear that I accept no fetters on my liberty of debate except those imposed by the rules of Order or by the public interest. I have a worthier reason, however, for not speaking at length about my American mission further than the published statement agreed upon between the President and me. Here is the reason. Our conversations were concerned with nothing, or almost nothing, but the movement of troops, ships, guns and aircraft and with the measures to be taken to combat the losses at sea and to replace, and more than replace, the sunken tonnage.
Here I will turn aside to meet a complaint which I have noticed that the Minister of Defence should have been in Washington when the disaster of Tobruk occurred. But Washington was the very place where he should have been. It was there that the most urgent future business of the war was being transacted, not only in regard to the general scene but also in regard to the particular matters that were passing. Almost everything I arranged in the United States with the President and his advisers is secret, in the sense that it must be kept from the enemy, and I have therefore nothing to tell about it, except this-that the two great English-speaking nations were never closer together and that there never was a more earnest desire between Allies to engage the enemy or a more whole-hearted resolve to run all risks and make all sacrifices in order to wage this hard war with vigour and carry it to a successful conclusion. That assurance, at least, I can give the House.
I hope there will no disparagement of the United States shipbuilding programme. We are making considerable shipbuilding efforts ourselves. We could only increase our output at the expense of other indispensable munitions and services. But the United States is building in the present calendar year about four times as much gross tonnage-not dead weight but gross tonnage-as we are building, and I am assured that she will launch between eight and 10 times as much as we are building in the calendar year 1943. Shipping losses have been very heavy lately, and the bulk has been upon the Eastern shores of America. The most strenuous measures are being taken to curtail this loss, and I do not doubt that they will be substantially reduced as the masses of escort vessels now under construction come into service and the convoy system and other methods of defence come into full and effective operation. These measures, combined with the great shipbuilding effort of the United States and the British Empire, should result in a substantial gain in tonnage at the end of 1943 over and above that which we now possess, even if, as I cannot believe, the rate of loss is not substantially reduced. This we shall owe largely to the prodigious exertions of the Government and people of the United States, who share with us, fully and freely, according to our respective needs and duties in this as in all other parts of our war programme.
I have not trespassed very long on the United States aspect, although that is the most vital sphere, and I return to the Desert and to the Nile. I hope the House will realise that I have a certain difficulty in defending His Majesty's Government from the various attacks which have been made upon them in respect of materials and preparation, because I do not want to say anything that can be shifted, even by the utmost ingenuity of malice, into a reflection upon our commanders in the field, still less upon the gallant men they lead. Yet I must say that one of the most painful parts of this battle is that in its opening stages we were defeated under conditions which gave a good and reasonable expectation of success. During the whole of the spring we had been desirous that the Army of the Western Desert should begin an offensive against the enemy. The regathering and reinforcement of our Army was considered to be a necessary reason for delay, but of course this delay helped the enemy also.
At the end of March and during the whole of April, he concentrated a very powerful air force in Sicily and delivered a tremendous attack upon Malta, of which the House was made aware at the time by me. This attack exposed the heroic garrison and inhabitants of Malta to an ordeal of extreme severity. For several weeks hundreds of German and Italian aircraft-it is estimated more than 600, of which the great majority were Germans-streamed over in endless waves in the hopes of overpowering the defences of the island fortress. There has never been any case in this war of a successful defence against a superior air power being made by aircraft which have only two or three airfields to work from. Malta is the first exception. At one time they were worn down to no more than a dozen fighters, yet, aided by their powerful batteries, by the ingenuity of the defence and by the fortitude of the people, they maintained an unbroken resistance. We continued to reinforce them from the Western Mediterranean as well as from Egypt by repeated operations of difficulty and hazard, and maintained a continuous stream of Spitfire aircraft in order to keep them alive, in spite of the enormous wastage, not only in the air but also in the limited airfields on the ground. As part of this, hundreds of fighter aircraft have been flown in from aircraft carriers by the Royal Navy, and we were assisted by the United States Navy, whose carrier Wasp rendered notable service on more than one occasion, enabling me to send them the message of thanks, "Who says a wasp cannot sting twice?" By all these exertions, Malta lived through this prodigious and prolonged bombardment, until at last, at the beginning of May, the bulk of the German aircraft, already weakened by most serious losses, had to be withdrawn for the belated German offensive on the Russian front.
Malta had come through its fearful ordeal triumphant and is now stronger in aircraft than ever before. But during the period when this assault was at its height, it was practically impossible for the fortress to do much to impede the reinforcements which were being sent to Tripoli and Benghazi. This, no doubt, was part of the purpose, though not the whole purpose, of the extraordinary concentration of air power which the enemy had thought fit to devote to the attack. The enemy did not get Malta, but they got a lot of stuff across to Africa. Remember that it takes four months to send a weapon round the Cape and perhaps a week or even less to send it across the Mediterranean-provided it gets across. Remember also that the great number of these desertised Spitfires, if not involved in very severe fighting at Malta, would have been available to strengthen our Spitfire forces in the battle which has been proceeding. Thus it may well be that we were relatively no better off in the middle of May than we had been in March or April.
However, the armies drew up in the Desert in the middle of May about 100,000 a side. We had 100,000 men, and the enemy 90,000, of whom 50,000 were Germans. We had a superiority in the numbers of tanks-I am coming to the question of quality later-of perhaps seven to five. We had a superiority in artillery of nearly eight to five. Included in our artillery were several regiments of the latest form of gun howitzer which throws a 55-pound shell 20,000 yards. There were other artillery weapons, of which I cannot speak, also available. It is not true, therefore, as I have seen it stated, that we had to face 50-pounder guns of the enemy with only 25-pounder guns. The 25-pounder, I may say, is one of the finest guns in Europe and a perfectly new weapon which has only begun to flow out since the war began. It is true that the enemy, by the tactical uses which he made of his 88 mm. anti-aircraft guns, converting them to a different purpose, and his anti-tank weapons gained a decided advantage. But this became apparent only as the battle proceeded. Our Army enjoyed through-out the battle and enjoys to-day superiority in the air. The dive bombers of the enemy played a prominent part at Bir Hakeim and Tobruk, but it is not true that they should be regarded as a decisive or even as a massive factor in this battle. Lastly, we had better and shorter lines of communication than the enemy, our railway being already beyond Fort Capuzzo and a separate line of communications running by the sea to the well-supplied base and depot of Tobruk.
We were, therefore, entitled to feel good confidence in the result of an offensive undertaken by us, and this would have been undertaken in the early days of June if the enemy had not struck first. When his preparations for an offensive became plainly visible, it was decided, and I think rightly, to await the attack in our fortified positions and then to deliver a counter-stroke in the greatest possible strength.
Here, then, were these armies face to face in the most forbidding and desolate region in the world, under conditions of extreme artificiality, able to reach each other only through a peculiar use of the appliances of modern war. The enemy's army had come across a disputed sea, paying a heavy toll to our submarines, and except for tile period when Malta was neutralised, to the Malta Air Force. The Imperial Forces had almost all come 12,000 miles through submarines which beset the British shores, and round the Cape to Suez or from South Africa or India. One may say that the forces assembled on both sides in this extraordinary situation represented a war effort which in other theatres would have amounted to three or four times their numbers.
Such was the position when, on 26th May, Rommel made his first onslaught. It is not possible for me to give any final account of the battle. Events move with such rapidity that there is no time to disentangle the past: one tale is good till another is told. Any hasty judgment would be more exciting than true. The main features may however be discerned. Rommel had expected to take Tobruk in the first few days, but the reception which he got deranged his plan. Very heavy losses in armour were sustained by both sides. However he held tenaciously to the inroad he had made, and we were so mauled in the struggle that no effective counter-stroke could be delivered. On 4th June an attempt was made, but was repulsed by a counter-attack with heavy loss by artillery. The battle then centred upon Bir Hacheim, where the Free French resisted with the utmost gallantry. Around this the struggle surged for eight or nine days. Finally it was decided to withdraw the garrison, and this was successfully accomplished, though with heavy losses.
Here, no doubt, was a turning point in the battle. Whether anything more could have been done we cannot tell. Certainly very large numbers of troops remained on fronts which were not engaged, and certainly Rommel and his Germans punched on unflaggingly day after day. After the fall of Bir Hacheim another five days of fighting occurred round the Knightsbridge and Acroma positions. Up till 13th June the battle was equal. Our recovery process had worked well. Both sides lost, I will not say evenly, but proportionately, because our numbers were greater, and we could expect to lose more while keeping even. But on the 13th there came a change. On that morning we had about 300 tanks in action, and by nightfall no more than 70 remained, excluding the light Stuart tanks; and all this happened without any corresponding loss having been inflicted on the enemy. Sir, I do not know what actually happened in the fighting of that day. I am only concerned to give the facts to the House, and it is for the House to decide whether these facts result from the faulty central direction of the war, for which of course I take responsibility, or whether they resulted from the terrible hazards and unforeseeable accidents of battle. With this disproportionate destruction of our armour Rommel became decisively the stronger. The battlefield passed into the hands of the enemy, and the enemy's wounded tanks could be repaired by his organisation while all our wounded tanks were lost to us.
Many evil consequences followed inevitably from this one day's fighting. There came the decision to withdraw from the Gazala position. The South Africa Division was withdrawn into Tobruk, and moved through Tobruk further East, without heavy loss. The main part of the 50th English Division extricated itself by a 120-mile journey round the Southern flank of the enemy. In the desert, everything is mobile and mechanised, and when the troops move they can move enormous distances forward or back. The old conceptions and measurements of war do not apply at all. One hundred miles may be lost or won in a day or a night. There followed the decision to hold Tobruk together with the Halfaya-Sollum-Capuzzo-Maddalena line, which I have already mentioned, and then the fall of Tobruk after only one single day of fighting.
This entailed withdrawal from the Sollum-Halfaya line to the Mersa Matruh position, which placed 125 miles of waterless desert between the 8th Army and its foes. Most authorities expected that 10 days or a fortnight would be gained by this. However, on the 5th day, on 26th June, Rommel presented himself with his armoured and motorised forces in front of this new position. Battle was joined on the 27th along the whole front, and for the first time I am glad to say our whole Army, which had been heavily reinforced with new and fresh troops, was engaged all together at one time. Although we consider we inflicted very heavy damage upon the enemy the advance of the German Light Division together with the remainder of the Panzer Corps, 100 to 150 heavily armed tanks, which is about what it amounted to-led to our further retirement owing to the destruction of our armour. Naturally, I am not in a position to tell the House about the reinforcements which have reached the Army or which are approaching, except that they are very considerable, and after the lecture I have been read by the right hon. Gentleman apparently it is wrong even to say that we shall hold Egypt. I suppose one ought to say we are going to lose Egypt. But I will go so far as to say that we do not regard the struggle as in any way decided.
Although I am not mentioning reinforcements, there is one reinforcement which has come, which has been in close contact with the enemy and which he knows all about. I mean the New Zealand Division. The Government of New Zealand, themselves under potential menace of invasion, authorised the fullest use being made of their troops, whom they have not withdrawn or weakened in any way. They have sent them into the battle, where, under the command of the heroic Freyburg, again wounded, they have acquitted themselves in a manner equal to all their former records. They are fighting hard at the moment.
Although the Army in Libya has been so far overpowered and driven back, I must make it clear, on behalf of the challenged central direction of the war, that this was not due to any conscious or willful grudging of reinforcements in man or material. Of course, the emergency of the Japanese war had led to the removal of a part of the Australian Forces to defend their homeland, and very rightly. In fact, it was I who suggested to them that they should not consider themselves bound in the matter, having regard to their own danger. Several important units of British troops had to go to India which, a little while ago, seemed threatened by invasion. Other Forces in India which were due to proceed to the Middle East had to be retained there. But extreme exertions have been made by the home Government for the last two years to strengthen and maintain the Armies in the Middle East. During that time, apart altogether from reinforcements to other theatres, there have gone to the Middle East from this country, from the Empire overseas and to a lesser extent from the United States, more than 950,000 men, 4,500 tanks, 6,000 aircraft, nearly 5,000 pieces of artillery, 50,000 machine guns and over 100,000 mechanical vehicles. We have done this in a period, let the House remember before they dismiss our efforts and our desires as inadequate to the occasion, when for a large part of the time we were threatened with imminent invasion here at home and during the rest of it were sending large supplies to Russia. So far as the central direction of the war is concerned, I can plead with some confidence that we have not failed in the exertions we have made or in the skill we have shown.
Now I come to the question of the quality of some of our material, to the design and armour of our tanks and to our anti-tank artillery. This was dealt with at some length yesterday by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Production, and by Lord Beaver-brook in another place. I agree with the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale that the House should read carefully that extremely masterly, intricate and authoritative statement of facts upon these matters. I do not attempt to go into them in detail here, as I should keep the House beyond the time they have so generously accorded me, but I must ask the House to allow me to place the salient points of the tank story before them.
The idea of the tank was a British conception. The use of armoured forces as they are now being used was largely French, as General de Gaulle's book shows. It was left to the Germans to convert those ideas to their own use. For three or four years before the war they were busily at work with their usual thoroughness upon design and manufacture of tanks, and also upon the study and practice of armoured warfare. One would have thought that even if the Secretary of State for War of those days could not get the money for large scale manufacture he would at any rate have had full-size working models made and tested out exhaustively, and the factories chosen and the jigs and gauges supplied, so that he could go into mass production of tanks and anti-tank weapons when the war began.
When what I may call the Belisha period ended we were left with some 250 armoured vehicles, very few of which carried even a 2-pounder gun. Most of these were captured or destroyed in France. After the war began the designs were settled and orders on a large scale were placed by the right hon. Gentleman. For more than a year, until Hitler attacked Russia, the threat of invasion hung over us, imminent, potentially mortal. There was no time to make improvements at the expense of supply. We had to concentrate upon numbers, upon quantity instead of quality. There was a major decision to which I have no doubt we were rightly guided.
MR. HORE-BELISHA: May I interrupt? I should have thought that if my right hon. Friend wanted to make some reference to technical matters during my period he would have told me, so that I could have the facts. That being so I must inform the House that a very long time ago, in the Debate on Greece in May, 1941, my right hon. Friend made certain charges about my period at the War Office in relation to tanks. I then had not the facts. I had to secure them from the War Office, and that I did on 23rd June, and I think in justice I must read this letter to the House:
"The Prime Minister was, I understand, intending to develop the argument that whereas in the last war tanks were slow in movement and designed to be proof against ordinary bullets only, it would have been natural to suppose that the preparations for this war would have included the energetic development of fast tanks which would also be sufficiently armoured to stand up against cannon fire. In so far as the Prime Minister's statement is capable of this interpretation, that you definitely ignored or rejected the advice of the General Staff to introduce tanks having both those qualities, it is not borne out by the fact. The Purple Primer of 1931 was only concerned with advocating a tank capable of resisting armour-piercing bullets and not artillery fire."
That is a direct contravention of an attack made upon me in May, 1941. My right hon. Friend is now making another attack on technical grounds with reference to my period, and I think he might have notified me in advance so that I might have access to the facts for my defence.
THE PRIME MINISTER: I was only citing the facts as they are known to me; I have not been concerned to make a detailed attack upon the right hon. Gentleman's administration of the War Office. I am explaining that we had, at the time after Dunkirk, to concentrate upon numbers. We had to make thousands of armoured vehicles with which our troops could beat the enemy off the beaches when they landed and fight them in the lanes and fields of Kent or Norfolk.
When the first new tanks came out they had grievous defects, the correction of which caused delay, and this would have been avoided if the preliminary experiments on the scale of 12 inches to the foot-full scale-had been carried out at an earlier period. Is that a very serious attack? Undoubtedly delay would have been saved if we had had the model there and worked it. How do you make a tank? People design it, they argue about it, they plan it and make it, and then you take the tank and test and re-test it. When you have got it absolutely settled you go into production, and only then do you go into production. But we have never been able to indulge in the luxury of that precise and leisurely process. We have had to take it straight off the drawing board and go into full production, and take the chance of the many errors which the construction will show coming out after hundreds and thousands of them have been made.
MR. HORE-BELISHA: What about the Churchill tank?
THE PRIME MINISTER: At the present moment I have not got there. At the present moment I am only dealing with the Matildas, Cruisers and Valentines, which I may say belong to the Belisha group. Nevertheless, I was about to say that in spite of the fact that there was this undoubted delay through no preliminary work having been carried as far as it should have been, it would be wrong in my opinion to write off as useless the Matilda, the Cruiser and the Valentine tanks. They have rendered great services, and they are to-day of real value. In Russia the Valentine is highly rated. Has the House any idea of the number of tanks we have sent to Russia? As I said, we have sent 4,500 altogether to the Nile Valley. We have sent over 2,000 tanks to Russia, and the Russians are using them against the German armour, with vigour and effect. Therefore, I am not prepared to say that it is right to dismiss these weapons-although their appearance was regarded by the circumstances which I have mentioned-as not effective and powerful weapons of war.
Shortly after the present National Government was formed, in June, 1940, to be exact, I called a meeting of all authorities to design and make a new tank, capable of speedy mass production and adapted to the war conditions to be foreseen in 1942. In 1942 that was the test. Of course I do not attempt to settle the technical details of tank design any more than I interfere with the purely tactical decisions of generals in the field. All the highest expert authorities were brought together several times and made to hammer out a strong and heavy tank, adapted primarily for the defence of this Island against invasion, but capable of other employment in various theatres. This tank, the A.22, was ordered off the drawing board, and large numbers went into production very quickly. As might be expected, it had many defects and teething troubles, and when these became apparent the tank was appropriately re-christened the "Churchill." These defects have now been largely overcome. I am sure that this tank will prove, in the end, a powerful, massive and serviceable weapon of war. A later tank, possessing greater speed, was designed about a year after, and plans have been made to put it into production at the earliest moment.
Neither of these types has yet been in employ against the enemy. He has not come here, and, although I sent the earliest two that were made out to Egypt to be tested and made desert-worthy, none has yet reached a stage where it can be employed at that distance. It must be remembered that to get a tank from this country, or a gun, into the hands of troops in the Nile Valley or in the desert takes about six months. Hon. Members will see that the date on which this battle began was a date before we could have got the new and improved weapon into the hands of the troops. For this battle-for the first battle I say the equipment was adequate-we tried to make up by numbers for an admitted inferiority in quality.
I have been asked by the hon. Gentleman who opened the Debate to speak about dive bombers and transport aircraft. I can only say that the highest technical authorities still hold very strong opinions on either side of this question. Of course, you cannot judge whether we ought to have had dive bombers at any particular date without also considering what we should have had to give up if we had had them. Most of the air-marshals, the leading men in the Air Force, think little of dive bombers, and they persist in their opinion. They are entitled to respect for their opinion, because it was from the same source that the 8-gun fighter was designed which destroyed so many hundreds of the dive bombers in the Battle of Britain and have enabled us to preserve ourselves free and uninvaded.
MR. BEVAN: The dive bomber in the Battle of Britain was adapted by the Germans for a use never intended for the dive bomber. The dive bomber was intended by German military strategy to be used in co-operation with troops. It was shot down over Britain because it was being wrongly used.
THE PRIME MINISTER: In what way does that affect the argument I am holding, namely, that if we had made dive bombers instead of 8-gun fighter aircraft, we might not have had the 8-gun fighter aircraft to shoot down the JU.87's when they came over? I remember well, 40 years ago, rising to interrupt the late Mr. Balfour, and, after I had said what I had to say, he rebuked me by saying, "I thought my hon. Friend rose to correct me on some point of fact, but it appears that he only wishes to continue the argument." Now there is no doubt whatever that the Army desire to have dive bombers, and nearly two years ago orders were placed for them. They have not come to hand in any number yet. That is a detailed story which I certainly do not wish to press, if it should be thought in any way that we were throwing any blame off our shoulders on to those of the United States. On the point of priority, the case is clear, when you have, as you had then in the United States, an immense market, an immense productive sphere and no priority questions had arisen. The rate at which the product was evolved was not influenced by the priority position. It was influenced by various incidents-changes of design and so forth-which occurred.
The dive bomber against ships at sea appears to me to be a still more dangerous weapon. I say that because this is my own opinion on the matter, but as to transport aircraft I wish, indeed, we had 1,000 transport aircraft; but if we had built 1,000 of these unarmed transport aircraft, it would have cut off our already far from adequate bomber force. I know there is a tendency to deride and disparage the bomber effort against Germany, but I think that is a very great mistake. There is no doubt that this bomber offensive against Germany is one of the most powerful means we have of carrying on an offensive war against Germany. We did not like it when the blitz was on, but we bore it. Everyone knows that it was the main preoccupation of the Government and the municipal authorities of that day, with factories being delayed in their work, ports congested and so forth. We, at any rate, had hope. We felt that we were on the rising tide. More was coming to us, and, moreover, we were buoyed up by the sympathy of the world-"London can take it" and so on. No such consolations are available in Germany. Nobody speaks with admiration and says, "Cologne can take it." They say, "Serve them right." That is the view of the civilised world. In addition to that, they know that this attack is not going to get weaker. It is going to get continually stronger until, in my view, it will play a great and perfectly definite part in abridging the course of this war, in taking the strain off our Russian Allies, and in reducing the building and construction of submarines and other weapons of war. Of course, one would like to have had both, but at this moment, much though we need transport aircraft, I am not at all sure, if I were offered a gift of 1,000 heavy bombers or 1,000 transports, which I should choose. I should take advice.
To return to the main argument which is before the House, I will willingly accept, indeed I am bound to accept, what the Noble Lord has called the "constitutional responsibility" for everything that has happened and I consider that I discharged that responsibility by not interfering with the technical handling of armies in contact with the enemy. But before the battle began I urged General Auchinleck to take the command himself, because I was sure nothing was going to happen in the vast area of the Middle East in the next month or two comparable in importance to the fighting of this battle in the Western Desert, and I thought he was the man to handle the business. He gave me various good reasons for not doing so, and General Ritchie fought the battle. As I told the House on Tuesday, General Auchinleck, on 25th June, superseded General Ritchie and assumed the command himself. We at once approved his decision, but I must frankly confess that the matter was not one of which we could form any final judgment, so far as the superseded officer is concerned. I cannot pretend to form a judgment upon what has happened in this battle. I like commanders on land and sea and in the air to feel that between them and all forms of public criticism the Government stand like a strong bulkhead. They ought to have a fair chance, and more than one chance. Men may make mistakes and learn from their mistakes. Men may have bad luck, and their luck may change. But anyhow you will not get generals to run risks unless they feel that they need not look over their shoulders or worry about what is happening at home, unless they feel they can concentrate their gaze upon the enemy. And you will not, I may add, get a Government to run risks unless they feel that they have got behind them a loyal, solid majority. Look at the things we are being asked to dare now, and imagine the kind of attack which would be made on us if we tried to do them and failed. In war time if you desire service you must give loyalty.
General Auchinleck is now in direct command of the battle. It is raging with great intensity. The communiqué which has been issued on the tape-I have not had any news myself-states that the attacks yesterday were repulsed. But the battle is of the most intense and serious character. We have assured General Auchinleck of our confidence, and I believe it will be found that this confidence has not been misplaced. I am not going to express any opinion about what it going to happen. I cannot tell the House-and the enemy-what reinforcements are at hand, or are approaching, or when they will arrive. I have never made any predictions except things like saying that Singapore would hold out. What a fool and a knave I should have been to say that it would fall. I have not made any arrogant, confident, boasting predictions at all. On the contrary, I have stuck hard to my blood, toil, tears and sweat, to which I have added muddle and mismanagement, and that, to some extent I must admit, is what you have got out of it.
I repudiate altogether the suggestion that I misled the House on 2nd June about the present campaign. All I said was that:
". . . it is clear that we have every reason to be satisfied, and more than satisfied, with the course which the battle has so far taken and that we should watch its further development with earnest attention."-[OFFICIAL REPORT, 2nd June; col. 533, Vol. 380]
Nothing could be more guarded. I do not know what my critics would like me to say now. If I predict success and speak in buoyant terms and misfortune continues, their tongues and pens will be able to dilate on my words. On the other hand, if I predict failure and paint the picture in the darkest hues-I have painted it in pretty dark hues-I might safeguard myself against one danger, but only at the expense of a struggling Army. Also I might be wrong. So I will say nothing about the future except to invite the House and the nation to face with courage whatever it may unfold.
I now ask the House to take a wider survey. Since Japan attacked us six months ago in the Far East we have suffered heavy losses there. A peace-loving nation like the United States, confined by two great oceans, naturally takes time to bring its gigantic forces to bear. I have never shared the view that this would be a short war, or that it would end in 1942. It is far more likely to be a long war. There is no reason to suppose that the war will stop when the final result has become obvious. The Battle of Gettysburg proclaimed the ultimate victory of the North, but far more blood was shed after the Battle of Gettysburg than before. At the same time, in spite of our losses in Asia, in spite of our defeats in Libya, in spite of the increased sinkings off the American coast, I affirm with confidence that the general strength and prospects of the United Nations have greatly improved since the turn of the year, when I last visited the President in the United States. The outstanding feature is of course the steady resistance of Russia to the invaders of her soil, and the fact that up to now at the beginning of July, more than halfway through the summer, no major offensive has been opened by Hitler upon Russia, unless he calls the present attacks on Kharkov and Kursk a major offensive. There is no doubt that the Russian Government and nation, wedded by the ties of blood, sacrifice and faith to the English speaking democracies of the West, will continue to wage war, steadfast, stubborn, invincible. I make no forecast of the future. All I know is that the Russians have surprised Hitler before and I believe they will surprise him again. Anyhow whatever happens they will fight on to death or victory. This is the cardinal fact at this time.
The second great fact is the growth of air power on the side of the Allies. That growth is proceeding with immense rapidity and is bound to manifest itself as the months pass by. Hitler made a contract with the demon of the air, but the contract ran out before the job was done, and the demon has taken on an engagement with the rival firm. How truly it has been said that nations and people very often fall by the very means which they have used and built their hopes upon for their rising up.
For the last six months our convoys to the East have grown. Every month about 50,000 men with the best equipment we can make have pierced through the U-boats and hostile aircraft which beset these islands, and have rounded the Cape of Good Hope. That this should have been done so far without loss constitutes an achievement prodigious and unexampled in history. As these successive Armies, for they are little less, round the Cape we decide where they are to go. Some months ago Australia feared that an invasion was imminent. If so, our Forces would have gone to aid our kith and kin irrespective of the position in the Middle East. Personally, I have never thought that the homeland of Australia would be heavily invaded by Japan in the present year, and now that the Australian manhood is armed and in the field, and that a large American Army has arrived in Australia and in the island stepping stones across the Pacific as a feature of the central direction of the war, I am confident that the mass invasion of Australia would be a most hazardous and unprofitable operation for Japan. On the contrary, throughout the whole of the South-West Pacific the watchword of the Allies is now "attack."
In March and April last we were deeply anxious about India, which, before Japan entered the war had been stripped almost bare of trained troops and equipment for the sake of other theatres. India has now been strongly reinforced. A far larger Army, British and Indian, stands in India under the command of General Wavell than ever before in the history of the British connection. Ceylon, which at one time appeared to be in great jeopardy, is now strongly defended by naval, air and military forces. We have secured a protective naval base in Madagascar. When I remember reading an article by the right hon. Gentleman headed, "Take Madagascar Now"-I am not blaming the right hon. Gentleman, as he could not know that our troops had been some weeks on the sea-I really wonder whether he might not have found time to make some acknowledgment of the speed and efficiency with which his direction had been carried out.
All this improvement in the position of Australia, New Zealand and India has been effected in the main by the brilliant victories gained by the United States Navy and Air Force over the Japanese in the Coral Sea and at Midway Island. No fewer than four out of eight Japanese regular aircraft carriers-vessels which take four years to make-have been sunk, as well as one of their converted auxiliary carriers. When the Japanese came into the Bay of Bengal at the beginning of April with five carriers, we were caused great anxiety, but the five are now at the bottom of the sea; and the Japanese, whose resources are strictly limited, are beginning to count their capital units on their fingers and toes. These splendid achievements have not received the attention they deserve in this island. Superb acts of devotion have been performed by the American airmen. From some of their successful attacks on the Japanese aircraft, only one aircraft returned out of 10; in others, the loss was more than half. But the work has been done, and the position in the Pacific has been definitely altered in our favour. This relief has enabled important forces to be directed upon Egypt. The extraordinary velour and tenacity of the Russian defence of Sebastopol and General Timoshenko's massive strokes in the battles round Kharkov, together with the lateness of the season, have enabled us to concentrate our efforts on the destruction of Rommel's army. At this moment, the struggle in Egypt is gradually approaching its full intensity. The battle is now in the balance, and it is an action of the highest consequence. It has one object, and one object only, namely, the destruction of the enemy's army and armoured power. Important aid is now on the way, both from Britain and from the United States. A hard and deadly struggle lies before the Armies on the Nile. It remains for us at home to fortify and encourage their Commander by every means in our power.
I wish to speak a few words "of great truth and respect"-as they say in the diplomatic documents-and I hope I may be granted the fullest liberty of debate. This Parliament has a peculiar responsibility. It presided over the beginning of the evils which have come on the world. I owe much to the House, and it is my hope that it may see the end of them in triumph. This it can do only if, in the long period which may yet have to be traveled, the House affords a solid foundation to the responsible Executive Government, placed in power by its own choice. The House must be a steady, stabilising factor in the State, and not an instrument by which the disaffected sections of the Press can attempt to promote one crisis after another. If democracy and Parliamentary institutions are to triumph in this war, it is absolutely necessary that Governments resting upon them shall be able to act and dare, that the servants of the Crown shall not be harassed by nagging and snarling, that enemy propaganda shall not be fed needlessly out of our own hands, and our reputation disparaged and undermined throughout the world. On the contrary, the will of the whole House should be made manifest upon important occasions. It is important that not only those who speak, but those who watch and listen and judge, should also count as a factor in world affairs. After all, we are still fighting for our lives, and for causes dearer than life itself. We have no right to assume that victory is certain; it will be certain only if we do not fail in our duty. Sober and constructive criticism, or criticism in Secret Session, has its high virtue; but the duty of the House of Commons is to sustain the Government or to change the Government. If it cannot change it, it should sustain it. There is no working middle course in wartime. Much harm was done abroad by the two days' Debate in May. Only the hostile speeches are reported abroad, and much play is made with them by our enemy.
A Division, or the opportunity for a Division, should always follow a Debate on the war, and I trust, therefore, that the opinion of the overwhelming majority of the House will be made plain not only in the Division, but also in the days which follow and that, if I may so call them, the weaker brethren will not be allowed to usurp and almost monopolise the privileges and proud authority of the House of Commons. The majority of the House must do their duty. All I ask is a decision one way or another.
There is an agitation in the Press which has found its echo in a number of hostile speeches to deprive me of the function which I exercise in the general conduct and supervision of the war. I do not propose to argue this to-day at any length, because it was much discussed in a recent Debate. Under the present arrangement the three Chiefs of the Staff, sitting almost continuously together, carry on the war from day to day assisted not only by the machinery of the great Departments which serve them, but by the Combined General Staff, and making their decisions effective through the Navy, Army and Air Forces over which they exercise direct operational control. I supervise their activities, whether as Prime Minister or Minister of Defence. I work myself under the supervision and control of the War Cabinet to whom all important matters are referred and whom I have to carry with me in all major decisions. Nearly all my work has been done in writing, and a complete record exists of all the directions I have given, the inquiries I have made and the telegrams I have drafted. I shall be perfectly content to be judged by them.
I ask no favours either for myself or for His Majesty's Government. I undertook the office as Prime Minister and Minister of Defence after defending my predecessor to the best of my ability, in times when the life of the Empire hung upon a thread. I am your servant, and you have the right to dismiss me when you please. What you have no right to do is to ask me to bear responsibilities without the power of effective action, to bear the responsibilities of Prime Minister but clamped on each side by strong men. As the hon. Member said, if to-day, or at any future time, the House were to exercise its undoubted right, I could walk out with a good conscience and the feeling that I have done my duty according to such light as has been granted to me. There is only one thing I would ask you in that event. It would be to give my successor the modest powers which would have been denied to me.
But there is a larger issue than the personal issue. The mover of this Vote of Censure has proposed that I should be stripped of my responsibilities for Defence in order that some military figure or that some other unnamed personage should assume the general conduct of the war, that he should have complete control of the Armed Forces of the Crown, that he should be the Chief of the Chiefs of the Staff, that he should nominate or dismiss the generals or the admirals, that he should always be ready to resign, that is to say, to match himself against his political colleagues, if colleagues they may be considered, if he did not get all he wanted, that he should have under him a Royal Duke as Commander-in-Chief of the Army, and finally, I presume, though this was not mentioned, that this unnamed personage should find an appendage in the Prime Minister to make the necessary explanations, excuses and apologise to Parliament when things go wrong, as they often do and often will. That is at any rate a policy. It is a system very different from the Parliamentary system under which we live. It might easily amount to or be converted into a dictatorship. I wish to make it perfectly clear that as far as I am concerned I shall take no part in such a system.
SIR J. WARDLAY-MILNE: I hope that my right hon. Friend has not forgotten the original sentence, which was "subject to the War Cabinet"?
THE PRIME MINISTER: Subject to the War Cabinet against which this all-powerful potentate is not to hesitate to resign on every occasion if he could not get his way. It is a plan, but it is not a plan in which I should personally be interested to take part, and I do not think that it is one which would commend itself to this House. The setting down of this Vote of Censure by Members of all parties is a considerable event. Do not, I beg you, let the House underrate the gravity of what has been done. It has been trumpeted all round the world to our disparagement, and when every nation, friend and foe, is waiting to see what is the true resolve and conviction of the House of Commons it must go forward to the end. All over the world, throughout the United States, as I can testify, in Russia, far away in China and throughout every subjugated country all our friends are waiting to know whether there is a strong, solid Government in Britain and whether its national leadership is to be challenged or not. Every vote counts. If those who have assailed us are reduced to contemptible proportions and their Vote of Censure on the National Government is converted to a vote of censure upon its authors, make no mistake, a cheer will go up from every friend of Britain and every faithful servant of our cause, and the knell of disappointment will ring in the ears of the tyrants we are striving to overthrow.
The House divided: Ayes, 25; Noes, 475.